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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Photoshop Tip: Four Methods to Extract Images/Icons from Scanned Art

There are times when an artist needs to extract an image from a scanned painting in order to use it on other backgrounds, as an icon for patterns, or in combination with other images from other scanned paintings. In Photoshop, there are many ways to extract image(s) from art or remove backgrounds from the image(s). You can use one or a combination of several methods to get the best results depending on how detailed the image. Below is a short description from Adobe Photoshop's help menu and a link to tutorial videos showing how images can be extracted or isolated by using the magic wand & quick selection tools, the color range command, the masking layer method, and the extract filter method.

Magic Wand / Quick Selection Tools
"The Magic Wand tool lets you select a consistently colored area (for example, a red flower) without having to trace its outline. You specify the color range, or tolerance, for the Magic Wand tool’s selection, based on similarity to the pixel you click. You can use the Quick Selection tool to quickly “paint” a selection using an adjustable round brush tip. As you drag, the selection expands outward and automatically finds and follows defined edges in the image."* This is the method most artists are familiar with and use. For simple and mostly straight lined images these tools work very well but for detailed curvy images the outer edges of the images tend to be "jaggy" and needs editing. The magic wand and quick selections tools are in the tools menu. Watch "Photoshop Tutorial - 9 - Magic Wand and Quick Selection Tools" on how to use the magic wand and quick selection tools.

Color Range Command
"The Color Range command selects a specified color or color range within an existing selection or an entire image."* This method takes more time to use than using the magic wand or quick selection tools but it does a better job of extracting detailed images. The color range command is in the select pull down menus. Watch "Photoshop Tutorial: Removing Background from Image Tutorial" on using the color range command.

Masking Layer Method
"You can add a mask to a layer and use the mask to hide portions of the layer and reveal the layers below. Masking layers is a valuable compositing technique for combining multiple photos into a single image or for making local color and tonal corrections."* This method does not extract an image or remove a background permanently and it can be continually edited. This is an easy method to use (similar to the color range command) but can be time consuming. The draw back is that files can get very large if many masked layered images are used in the same file. I do not recommend it to mask icons for patterns. The mask command is in the layer pull down menu. Watch "Basic Masking in Photoshop" on how to mask layers.

Extract Filter Method
"The Extract filter provides a sophisticated way to isolate a foreground object and erase its background on a layer. Even objects with wispy, intricate, or undefinable edges may be clipped from their backgrounds with a minimum of manual work."* I must admit that I haven't used this method and in fact I just discovered it while researching for this article. But I am really excited about trying it because it looks like the best method in extracting art especially if the image has lots of detail on the outer edges such as animal hair. The extract command is in the filter pull down menu. Read Adobe's tutorial "Extract an object from its background" and watch the video "Photoshop Background Extraction - using extract tool" on using the extract filter method.

* description from Photoshop's help menu

Make sure that you look at the comments to see other methods in extracting images!

If you would like to share information about other methods in extracting images or comments about this article please click on the below comment button.


  1. Hi Joan ~ I've been working in PS since version 2.0 (way before layers even existed), and I certainly don't know everything about PS, but I do know that hands-down, the sharpest, cleanest way to extract an item from an image is to use the pen tool to draw a path around the image shape itself, then making that path a selection and lifting it into its own new layer. This method, of course is much harder with fuzzy images, but for clean-lined images, this is the ticket. I even posted a little tutorial on my blog:

  2. Thanks so much BJ for sharing another method and link to extract images!

  3. With the color range command I know that you're better off using the PS menu of Cyans, Magentas, Shadows etc. rather than 'sampled color.' This way it selects ALL of that color rather than specifically bit by bit which can be very tedious. Extract filter I've not tried yet though, thanks for the tip!

  4. I just watched the "Photoshop Background Extraction" video and it looks like another excellent tool to add to my arsenal - especially for subjects that have whispy edges (hair, fur, fine swirls, etc.). Thanks for recommending it.

  5. These are the kinds of things that are really helpful to know when you are sitting alone in your studio trying to figure out photoshop tricks

  6. Hi Joan, thanks so much for your interesting and helpful blog! I hope you don’t mind adding my contribution to this topic:

    I like to use the pen tool and paths to extract images out of a background. It takes more time, but makes very clean, precise silhouettes. Here’s how:

    Use the pen tool to place a bezier curve with points around the edge of your image. Refine the curves by pulling out the handles and repositioning points. In the Path window, name your path (don’t leave it as Work Path) or the next path you make will overwrite it.

    Click the Load Path as Selection button at the bottom of the Path window. It will turn to marching ants. Use that to make a mask in the image layer you wish to extract. You can now see what the silhouette looks like without actually extracting it by making a solid color layer below your image. If you wish, reload your path and continue to refine the points and handles. Make a new mask to check your work.

    Once the silhouette is right, apply the mask. (I always make a copy of the layer before appying the mask so that I can refine again if needed.)

    Tip: Modify your selection (the marching ants) by using the tools in the Select menu at the top. For instance, if your image has a soft edge, use Select -> Modify -> Feather to soften the selection.


  7. Thanks for the great post Joan. I'm with BJ and Marcia on the pen tool as a favorite option. But I'll be honest and share that I'm a rebel and I often find myself using (GASP) the lasso tool. I know, risky risky. Works for me, though. (Well, much of the time.)

  8. Been out of touch with PS for some time and it is nice to see these tutorials to jog the memory.

    A pleasant selection of tools to learn from.

    Thanks to you.

  9. Hi Joan,
    I tried color range on a dog photo, a big mess, looked just like the lasso but it had only picked up some of the colors, not all. The Extract tool was abandoned in CS4, it still looked like chewed edges, and never really did animal hair. Sad but true, the dreaded pen tool is my choice, then painting back in hairs. There is a way with channels, going into the color channels, you can get some wispy hairs, sometimes...

  10. What a shame Ellie. I wonder why they discontinued the extract filter method? It goes to show that sometimes the simplest tool but not always the fastest works the best.

  11. Corel Knockout is still the best software to extract hair...

  12. You can still get the Extract filter, photomerge filter and contact sheet filter as well as some other filters from Adobe for CS5. They allow you to get them as optional filters.

    BTW, I still use the extract filter for any photos with hair, or good depth shadows or any fuzzy edges. The key to using this Extract is to make the green brush large and blobby on the hair that is showing through to the background. Then make the brush very fine for the hard edges. It takes some practice to be good at it, but then it works every time.

  13. Thank you for all of the PS tips! I have recently downloaded it...and well...I am a bit intimidated to use it. I am not techy at all, but really want to get my art licensed. Does an artist have to know Photoshop or Illustrator before they can have their work licensed?

    1. Pem, Knowing how to use Photoshop or hiring someone that knows how to use it is very important in licensing art. And knowing how to use Illustrator "may" be essential if your main emphasize is designing pattern collections for the fabric industry. Otherwise, Photoshop is the software that is used. Many but NOT all manufacturers want art images that are in Photoshop layered files so that they can be edited; change colors, move icons, remove and add icons, change text, reformat the shape of the image, etc. If you are not familiar with Photoshop, I recommend taking a class or reading or viewing tutorials about it. Many communities have Photoshop classes at colleges and adult education at recreational centers. Some artists hire a person that knows how to use Photoshop so that they get one-on-one instructions. Those persons can be found by asking at art centers, colleges, or computer stores. There are many Photoshop tutorials videos that are free on I wish you much success in learning Photoshop and licensing your work! Joan